77 North Washington Street
--> hundred and twenty-five years ago Mark Twain wrote what he called a "novelette" for The Atlantic Monthly. This month we are publishing that 8,000-word story, which Twain titled "A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage." This seems at first like the ultimate joke about the rude and deleterious habits of editors in replying to the queries of freelance writers. One imagines the magazine's fiction committee, four bearded gentlemen and a lady of a certain age, reporting to the literary editor: "We have reached a decision on the matter of the story by Mr. Twain. In our judgment, it may be published. We will now take up the matter of the poem by Mr. Whitman."
The truth is, we just sort of forgot about Mr. Twain's submission for a century and a quarter, until reminded of it by the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, one of the country's important Twain repositories. The vagaries of the story make for a story in themselves, as the humorist and writer Roy Blount Jr. explains in a foreword and afterword. But what about the novelette—is it important? Does its rediscovery matter beyond the mere fact of the thing?
Blount argues yes, and his reasons for this begin with the novel Huckleberry Finn. Ernest Hemingway said, as Blount reminds us, that all modern American literature began with that book. In Huckleberry Finn, Twain found not only his own voice but the primal version of what would come to be seen as the voice of the modern American novel—the voice, really, of the modern American sensibility.
This is the voice that rings through the writings of H. L. Mencken and Ring Lardner, through the films of W. C. Fields and Preston Sturges, through the journalism of A. J. Liebling and Tom Wolfe. It is intelligent but not intellectual—it places at least as much value on street smarts as on other forms. It insists on clarity, both in truth-telling and in storytelling. It is brutal in its candor about what people do to one another, but it is not approving of brutality. It is egalitarian and humanistic. It is to some degree cynical, but in an American, not a European, way: a faith in the capacity for redemption shines dimly but persistently through bleakness. In style it is deceptively straightforward, deceptively casual. It depends greatly on humor—humor more than wit—and it scorns, and scores off, all manner of pretension.
Twain's story is the first offering in a special, double issue of The Atlantic Monthly. (The next issue will be September.) The July/August issue celebrates and explores, in various ways, the American Century that Twain ushered in with Huckleberry Finn. It includes a short story, "Show-and-Tell," by the southern writer George Singleton—the first of Singleton's stories that The Atlantic has published. In its subversive funniness this is writing that Twain would have recognized as kin to his own. In "The Mad Poets Society," Alex Beam offers a look at a particular small corner of modern American literary life: McLean Hospital, in suburban Boston, which admitted more than its share of delusional poets. Beam writes about three of the most famous residents, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Anne Sexton.
Finally, in this discussion of the American Century, we come to the end of the line that Twain begat, in B. R. Myers's "A Reader's Manifesto." The cultural establishment, Myers writes, never tires of telling us how lucky we are to be living and reading in these times. He begs to differ, in a splenetic and unforgiving polemical romp. Myers chooses five of America's most celebrated novelists as exemplars of one variety or another of prose that he condemns as intended not so much to entertain readers as to impress upon them, repeatedly, the news that they are in the presence of a Great Writer. His essay is certainly provoking; he intends it to be. He writes not as a literary critic (indeed, he has never been published as such) but as a reader, outraged and seeking to be outrageous in turn. Myers is thirty-seven years old and lives in Los Lunas, New Mexico. He was educated in South Africa and Germany. He wrote "A Reader's Manifesto" for himself, and then sent it to The Atlantic on speculation. We thought about waiting 125 years to publish it, but Myers was insistent. What's to be done about the situation he describes? "At the very least, the critics could start toning down their hyperbole," Myers writes. "How better to ensure that Faulkner and Melville remain unread by the young than to invoke their names in praise of some new bore every week?"